Miles Vining & Kevin Schranz, Into Helmand With the Walking Dead (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Miles Vining enlisted in the US Marines in 2010 as a rifleman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. He served two tours in Afghanistan. On leaving, he earned his degree at Indiana University while he wrestled with his inner demons in a world he no longer understood or that he felt understood him. Into Helmand With the Walking Dead is his memoir of life in the Marines and after; but it’s also a story of men lost in Afghanistan, some physically, some psychologically and emotionally.
Vining’s memoir follows the usual soldier’s story format of youth, girlfriend, enlistment, training, and off to the front. The girlfriend motif is important in this instance because Lynn is the love of Vining’s life. He dwells on that and his training as a Marine; a soldier ready to kill, ready for war. His first tour is anticlimactic in that regard; Vining sees no action worth mentioning, just the day-in, day-out routines of infantry life in an occupied land interspersed with small dramas but no crises. He arrives back in the US a bit older but not much wiser, and his relationship with Lynn breaks down while he struggles to settle. That isn’t helped by a horrible training accident that kills his best friend, one of three deaths that will haunt Vining. His relief at going back to Afghanistan is almost tangible.
That second tour is a completely different story. Vining’s unit is sent to a hot zone infested by the Taliban, and he gets all the combat he can handle. His unit comes under fire while on patrol and there is the ever-present threat of IEDs and suicide bombers. Vining loses his second brother-in-arms, killed in action by a Taliban bullet, but he comes through physically unscathed. On his return to the US, Vining leaves the Marines, but the Marines do not leave him. His frustration with civilian life, now as a student, overwhelms him at times, and his growing anger is tangible. Then his ex-Marine friend, Kevin Schranz, commits suicide, which is a stunning blow to Vining. He exits his memoir with what all this means, not just to him, but to the other men he fought alongside, many of whom have also struggled to adapt, with some of them committing suicide too. It’s a sombre note on which to finish, but a necessary one.
I nearly gave up on this book after the first hundred pages, but I am glad I didn’t. As a combat memoir, Into Helmand With the Walking Dead is unbalanced with little of any substance happening until the last third. It would have been useful from that perspective to read more about Vining’s combat experiences. As a soldier’s story, however, Vining’s memoir often crosses over into social history, offering valuable insights into the ordinary infantryman’s life at war and at home. The underlying societal message shouldn’t be lost either; too many of these men commit suicide, while others feel alienated. Vining brings that out well in his remembrance of Kevin Schranz, who receives co-author status, set alongside his own post-war battles. In the end, this is a sobering book and well worth reading.